Manuscript Painting of Assam: In Conversation with Jadab Chandra Mahanta

in Interview
Published on: 17 September 2018

Meghna Baruah

Meghna Baruah is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. She hails from, lives and works in Assam. Her area of special interest has been learning about local cultures especially traditional forms of visual art and communication.

Transcript of interview conducted on November 7, 2017, at Jadab Chandra Mahanta’s residence at Titabor, Assam.


Jadab Chandra Mahanta is a retired teacher and a Vaishnavite cleric attached to a Vaishnavite monastery named Bor Elengi Bogiai Satra in Titabor, Assam. He engages in a number of traditional arts and crafts like manuscript painting and writing, mask making and jewellery design.


Meghna Baruah: What inspired you to be a manuscript painter and a calligraphist? How and why did you begin working in this area?


Jadab Chandra Mahanta: There is a very old manuscript that we have preserved in our Satra. It is a lata-kata-puthi, meaning one in which the text is surrounded and decorated with a colourful painted border. We have a ritual that we should follow every year especially during the month of Bhada (Assamese month occurring around August and September) – i.e., reading out religious hymns from a traditional manuscript (instead of a printed one). My senior at the Satra was an aged person, hence he could not see properly. He used to make me sit next to him during this ritual so that I could assist him while reading from the old manuscript. This is how I came to know about manuscripts for the first time.


The manuscript I am talking about is approximately a hundred years old although I do not know when it was exactly created. It is still in good condition and is really beautiful. This manuscript made me think how such works of art were created and if a similar method could be devised now to create new manuscripts. I asked my senior at the Satra and he gave me some tips on the process of this traditional form. I also met other aged people and seniors who I felt will have knowledge on the traditional process of manuscript painting. Although most of them had information about it, each one of them told me different methods of preparing colours, ink and paper. I took all their suggestions, experimented for over two years and devised my own method that I felt is most suitable.


M.B.: What do you mostly create nowadays? Have you tried to make any innovation in manuscript painting to cater to the present generation?


J.C.M.: People come to me so that I write abhinandan patras (letter of appreciation or welcome notes) on sachi pat for them. I was the first person to bring about this kind of an innovation. I had made such a letter for Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for the first time. The envelope of the letter was made with sachi pat. Then I had made one for singer Bhupen Hazarika and another for writer Mamoni Raison Goswami. I had also presented one to ex-Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi when he was holding office as the head of the state. Later, I had made one for a person from Golaghat who has sent it to Australia.


My primary concern is that manuscript painting being an Assamese form of art should flourish. Traditional arts of various regions of India and the world have flourished. Assamese art is not known even among the people of Assam. Rather than using paper for abhinandan patras, they can be given in sachi pat. Writing on sachi pat looks much more grand and sober, provided people appreciate its value and beauty. Such a letter will remain intact for many years and generations to come and will also keep this art form alive. Many people have taken such letters from me but the only problem is that they require it immediately. Nowadays people do not like to give time for anything and want everything to be done quickly.


Since I also make masks, I have also tried to make an innovation in this craft. I have tried to alter the design of our traditional mask so that it can be used as wall hangings.


Apart from these innovations I have also been involved in writing and drawing on traditional manuscripts. I have made a few during demonstrations, and later, have made around five of them that were given to Sankaradeva Kalakshetra in Guwahati. All of them were small in size except one, which was bigger and where a single sheet of bark was given many folds. I had written a play in it.


M.B.: Do you teach manuscript painting or writing to people who are interested to learn from you?


J.C.M.: I do workshops sometimes but have not been able to give full time to it as I have different responsibilities to fulfill as a cleric of the Vaishnavite monastery. I conducted my first workshop at Sankaradeva Kalakshetra in 2005 and in the following year in 2006. Simultaneously, Shri Budhindra Nath Borpathak had also carried out a similar workshop in 2005 at Swami Vivekananda Kendra. I have coordinated workshops on manuscript painting in 2007, 2008 and 2009 as well at different institutions in Majuli, Delhi and Titabor respectively. I am thinking of doing another workshop by the end of this year.


I have also conducted workshops in Nagaon and Dhing and these workshops, apart from manuscript painting, covered subjects like mask making and traditional Assamese jewellery made from wood and paper. I have carried out a month long workshop on costume design that was sponsored by Sangeet Natak Akademi. The Akademi gave a stipend to me as well as to the trainers.


M.B.: You have conducted so many workshops. Do you see the same students coming back to you to learn manuscript painting in greater detail? Why do you think they come to learn in the first place?


J.C.M.: Some learn for money because they get a stipend as a trainee, but there are some who learn to purely keep the art form alive. Five boys from my Satra have taken the work seriously and learnt the art form. When I see them working, I feel my efforts all these years have been successful. I don’t know what others are doing outside. However, I know that this art form will at least remain alive within my Satra. During the time of Raas Mela (an annual cultural and religious festival associated with Raas Leela of Lord Krishna with his Gopis) they help me out in painting and in making masks. Their work is not very fine and the finishing is not that great since everything needs to be done within a short span of time.


Earlier when my Borata (senior) used to make masks he would take at least six months to complete the work. Work was very tedious in those days as colours were not readily available in the market like they are today. I have seen him working when I was young. He would use soft brick known as mitha ita to make red colour and soot from kerosene lamp or earthen lamp was used to create black colour. Earlier, people were very hardworking and dedicated. Our ancestors gave art a much higher value and they treated it as a form of devotion. Now everything is available but people are not ready to work hard.


I had once given thirty-three masks for the festival of Sankara Janmotsav. People usually would carry the Bhagawata from one home to another during this festival. I personally did not like this ritual. Like the Koran and the Bible is not taken out from mosques and churches, I feel even the Bhagavata that is our religious book should not be taken out during processions. There are many beautiful arts and crafts like masks that our guru and his disciples have created and those should be exhibited during processions. The masks that I had provided were taken out during the Sankara Janmotsav and the procession was very successful.


However, once the event was over I saw the young boys who wore masks during the procession throw the masks away. Some of them were also broken as a result of mishandling. I felt really sad and thought these boys had destroyed my whole purpose of holding the procession. But they were not to be blamed since they did not know how much hard work had gone into making the masks. I called the boys later and made them understand that it took me a week to make a single mask. Organizers of Sankara Janmotsav came to apologize. I told them I felt sad with the incident but I am not blaming the boys for it.


M.B.: Do you feel people in Assam and outside have started appreciating art forms like manuscript painting and mask making? Are they ready to pay a good price if it is sold commercially?


J.C.M.: The wall hangings that I have tried to make from masks are an attempt to make such art forms more viable commercially. If our boys can make such handicrafts on a larger scale they may be able to earn an income from it. But it is unfortunate that people in Assam are not really ready to appreciate Assamese arts and crafts and they do not want to pay for it. They will pay for a Chinese toy for five hundred rupees but not for traditional artifacts of their own culture. There are very few people who appreciate it. A bank manager had come to me once and had asked me to make a Ganesha mask/wall hanging for him. He appreciated our work and he calls me even today.


People from outside Assam appreciate our work more and even pay if Assamese artifacts are sold commercially. Similarly, even in the case of manuscripts, I am trying to innovate by making certificates or abhinandan patras. People will not pay for a manuscript made in the traditional method for five thousand rupees because they can buy the same text in printed form for a much lesser price. I feel people nowadays cannot survive by making manuscripts. They have to make certain innovations. If some of our boys who are creative make certificates on sachi pat they might be able to earn an income out of it.


Some stories can also be narrated through traditional manuscript painting and sold commercially. I was once part of a workshop on manuscript painting where children from an art college had taken part. Mask making artist Hem Chandra Goswami’s brother, Krishna Mahanta, was also present in that workshop. I divided the trainees into two groups – those who can draw well were one group and those who had good handwriting was another group. Final manuscripts that were created in the workshop by these two teams were very beautiful.


M.B.: Are you involved in preservation of old manuscripts?


J.C.M.: There are many old manuscripts that exist today. Most people don’t give it for preservation. They are in a bad shape. For example, I once came to know that in a particular Satra there were many old manuscripts. I went to enquire and saw that there were around hundred manuscripts that were kept in jute bags. It took me three days only to put the manuscripts in order. I asked the authorities at the Satra if they would want to give the manuscripts somewhere for preservation but they did not agree. They prefer to keep it with themselves even if it gets destroyed.